My review of Influence also appears in this week's WE.
STAGE REVIEW: History and fantasy meld beautifully in ‘Influence’
Victoria-based playwright Janet Munsil might be a genius. At first glance, the ideas behind her new play, Influence, seem too numerous and, well, dull — like some strange introductory English Lit class — to result in anything resembling an entertaining two hours of theatre. And yet, in her capably crafty hands, she makes her audience care about the magic of inspiration and art by interweaving Greek mythology, Romantic poet John Keats, and failed painter Benjamin Robert Haydon.
Influence delights in its academics, but takes equal pleasure in blending fact and fiction for a full-bodied re-imagining of a visit by Keats and Haydon to view the Elgin Marbles (ancient Greek statues originally housed in the Parthenon, and the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet). There, the pair meet three tempestuous Greek gods — Athena, Apollo, and Hephaestus — who end up battling over Keats’s fate, as well as settling old scores with each other.
This is an impeccably cast production, but a few standouts include Daniel Arnold, who is a joy as Keats. His desperation is palpable (Keats has just quit his job to become a poet), and his delighted awe at Haydon’s artistic passion makes their mentor-protégé relationship entirely believable. Colleen Wheeler is always wonderful, and her Athena is powerful and appropriately intimidating, given that the character is the God of wisdom and war.
But Influence’s greatest asset is Mike Stack as Haydon, imagined here as obnoxious, self-involved, a borderline mad Willy Wonka wielding a paintbrush. Yet Stack keeps the character relatable, allowing the audience to see that for all Haydon’s bravado, his denial is a fragile bubble in which to hide.
This is Influence’s world premiere, and while there likely are still tweaks to be made (it’s about 20 minutes too long), it has all the makings of a new classic.